Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

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Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se over 4 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!

Why are wolves so vicious but dogs are so docile? Aren't they pretty closely related?

Asked by circle gets the square over 4 years ago

The answer lies in the domestication process that transformed gray wolves into dogs. This process began between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, when early man began interacting with and taming wild wolves. Not all wolves were suited for this, so only the most "sociable" and "approachable" animals were tamed. These wolves bred with other "man-friendly" wolves, and their offspring grew up even more comfortable around man. As each generation passed, the fear of man gradually left these wolves. And as each generation passed, the wolves' anatomy and physiology began changing. Humans who wanted strong animals to pull their sleds selectively bred their strongest animals together. Humans who wanted fast animals to help them hunt selectively bred their fastest animals together. Eventually, the wolves had changed so much that they weren't even really wolves anymore. That's when they first became dogs. (And that's why there's so much variation between breeds today!) To answer your question, I would argue that wolves aren't actually "vicious" creatures; they are just wild animals that are guided by instinct and strength and prowess. Their natural fear of man is what makes them appear vicious to us. Dogs, on the other hand, have been bred and raised among humans for so long that they view our relationship with them as natural. Their instinct to fear us has been absent for many thousands of years, so they are born with a clean slate against us. It is up to us to ensure we live up to their trust.

Have you witnessed any grizzly animal attacks during your time in zoos (on humans or other animals)? Any one in particular stand out as the worst?

Asked by grizzly adamz over 4 years ago

Hi Griz! Believe it or not, I actually haven't seen any grisly attacks--just occasional bites or scrapes or bruises. There are a lot less attacks than you might think, and this is partially due to the safety protocols zoos and aquariums put into place before an animal and its keeper even meet. Animals are basically separated into "fight" animals or "flight" animals. The "fight animals" (bears, most big cats, etc.) are hard-wired to stand their ground when threatened, while the "flight animals" (most hoofstock, wolves, raptors, etc.) have evolved to flee. In most zoos, keepers use "protected contact" while dealing with fight animals--and even some flight animals. This means all training must be done through some kind of barrier--like a fence or bars. This prevents most dangerous incidents from occurring. Injuries can occur even when working with flight animals, of course, so keepers must always be alert, and we must learn to "read" our animals before training can occur. If an animal seems "off" for some reason, we must trust our gut and put our personal safety first--even if it means temporarily missing a training session. (In the event we do get injured, 95% of the time it's because of an error on OUR part--not paying attention, not reading our animals correctly, being distracted, etc.) Here are my personal claims to fame: I have been bitten by a raccoon (twice!), bitten by a bottlenose dolphin, footed by a great horned owl, cornered by a Bactrian camel and stabbed in the arm by a mountain goat. (Every time, the injury was my fault!)

What zoos do you consider the best in terms of providing a natural habitat for its animals?

Asked by Alex J. Cavanaugh over 4 years ago

Hi Alex, and thanks for stopping by! There are so many amazing animal care facilities out there that it is really hard to pick. There any many standards of care that must be met in order for a facility to display exotic species. Some of the highest of these standards are set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Facilities that are accredited by this organization are considered the very best of the best. (Look for their logo next time you visit a facility!) My personal favorite zoos and aquariums are Disney's Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld's Discovery Cove, the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium--although there are many, many others out there that are just as amazing. In my opinion, these facilities have taken extra special pains to provide incredible enrichment and natural habitats for their animals, and they have also done an amazing job with their educational and conservation signage.

When you get an exotic new animal, how do you know it will tolerate the food you feed it? Do you have to import food from its native habitat too?

Asked by zazreal over 4 years ago

Hi Zazreal! The great things about zoos and aquariums is that they often work together to ensure their animals receive the very best nutrition possible. In addition to consulting on-site veterinarians, they work together to find out which foods are working best at other facilities. Native food is brought in whenever possible. When it is unavailable--like in the case of polar bears, who primarily eat seals--its nutritional makeup is replicated through supplements and science. Zookeepers also work with the preferences of their individual animals, and they do their best to provide "favorites" whenever possible.

When a trainer gets attacked by an animal, is it usually because the trainer did something wrong? Or do wild animals sometimes just revert to their untamed nature?

Asked by zazreal over 4 years ago

I would say it is almost always zookeeper error. Of course, that error extends to our inability to sometimes read the cues our animals are sending us, so I guess it's really a combination of human error and animal wildness. No matter how often we work with a particular animal, we must never forget it is wild. It operates much more instinctually than a domestic animal, so its behavior can be much more unpredictable. A sudden noise, a smell... Many, many variables can affect that animal's behavior, so we must become experts at the vocal and non-vocal cues the animal gives us. We must also never think we are "above" the safety protocols put in place for us, and we mustn't be too proud to cut short a training session if we sense a change in our animal's behavior. The trick is just to keep control and to end our session on a positive note. We can always come back and try again later.

Why can't cats be trained to sit, stay, or heel like dogs can?

Asked by luke over 4 years ago

Great question, Luke! Cats are often much more difficult to train than dogs, and the reason makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. Cats have evolved to be mostly solitary hunters, so they are much more self-sufficient and independent than pack animals like dogs and wolves. Dogs are already hard-wired to respond to social cues from their pack mates, so this behavior is easily redirected into training sessions. (And nowadays, we just happen to be their pack mates!)